Review by Daz Gale
If you hop on the Eurostar from London, you can be in Paris in just a couple of hours. It’s not the only beautiful place you can get to via a short train journey from London – a speedy journey on the new Elizabeth Line takes you to Reading, which is nearby the picturesque Mill at Sonning. The latest production being performed there is the romantic comedy We’ll Always Have Paris. But would it be l’amour for me for this show or is it one I couldn’t wait to say au revoir too? (And that is the extent of all the French I know… Lady Marmalade lyrics aside)
We’ll Always Have Paris sees three women of a certain age from the United Kingdom gather in retired Headmistress Nancy’s Paris apartment. Nancy is joined by recently widowed Anna and divorcee Raquel alongside actor/handyman Charlot and a landlady from the stuff of nightmares. Throughout the course of eight scenes, we follow our main trio and over the course of a few weeks as they reunite for the first time in ages and deal with the changing dynamics in their own lives, personalities and relationships together.
Elizabeth Elvin is the glue of the show as Nancy. Welcoming her friends and indeed the audience into her home, she gives an accomplished performance and perfectly taps into the intricacies of her character. Natalie Ogle gives a sweet performance as the initially mild-mannered Anna, allowing herself to stay in the background compared to her more domineering friends but while still commanding attention. The main trio is completed by Debbie Arnold – an absolute star as the eternally youthful Raquel, delivering a brilliantly comedic and flirty performance that seems to channel Lesley Joseph in Birds Of A Feather while bearing a slight resemblance to Dolly Parton.
Richard Keep makes the most of a fairly one-note almost caricature of a character as handyman/actor Charlot. He is perfectly charming as the loveable character, though the less that is said about his musical number, the better (through no fault of his own). The cast are completed by Basienka Blake as Madame Bouissiron. While her stage time is extremely limited, she gives a memorable performance as the dragon landlady who veers dangerously close to panto villain.
Sally Hughes directs the action beautifully, making full use of Michael Holt’s glorious set design, intricately recreating Nancy’s flat. However, one element that fails to live up to the rest of these elements, sadly, is Jill Hyem’s writing. While perfectly inoffensive in its own right, it has the habit of plodding on unassumingly and can at times be rather monotonous. Moments such as the aforementioned musical number feels ill-advised and pretty cringeworthy, while a game of Monopoly, clearly meant to evoke hilarity misses the mark so mark, it should have gone straight to jail and not pass Go.
I previously compared one of the characters to the TV show Birds Of A Feather and that show was what I kept coming back to while watching this. It felt like it could have been written as an episode of that, albeit with less sharp writing. We’ll Always Have Paris did feel more like a TV sitcom, and maybe it would have worked better on screen as it failed to leap off the stage like you’d have hoped it would have here. That’s not to say it was bad – it just wasn’t the most memorable of shows.
Trips to The Mill at Sonning are more than just the show, however. This is dinner theatre at its finest. As well as taking in the beautiful sights both inside the gorgeous Mill and outside (you might even be able to spot George Clooney if you’re lucky) you are also treated to the most delicious two course meal and the friendliest staff you are ever likely to come across. Trips to The Mill at Sonning are always a pleasurable experience, even if the show in itself doesn’t quite match up to the high quality and standard of everything else on offer there.
We’ll Always Have Paris might not be able to follow in the five star tap-dancing footsteps of their previous production Top Hat but it is still a highly enjoyable couple of hours of theatre that should put a smile on your face even if it doesn’t leave you rolling in the aisles. At the very least, it’s worth a short ride out of London to experience this beautiful venue and the pure pleasure if offers. With a great roster of shows to look forward to this year, including Gypsy, we’ll always have Sonning – and for that, I am always thankful.
We’ll Always Have Paris plays at The Mill at Sonning until 11th March. Tickets from https://millatsonning.com/
Photos by Andreas Lambis